I’ve never owned a smartphone or used social media and I’m in my 40s, so when I see young people like 17-year-old Logan Lane and those in his “Luddite Club” take a stand and pause the technology that’s been in their lives since birth, I’m amazed.
Poverty made me a late adopter. I didn’t have a computer in college or a phone – not even a landline – when I was in my early 20s. My boyfriend’s family lived nearby and I could use their family when I needed it. In 2006, I bought my first cell phone, a prepaid Nokia cell phone, to coordinate my father’s cancer treatment while he was away from home, and finally committed to a monthly plan 11 years later, in 2017.
When people find out I don’t have a smartphone, they expect me to lecture on the evils of technology or congratulate me on going off the grid. I correct your misconceptions that I avoid technology. With a computer and wi-fi, I use the internet for email, news and research; Zoom for remote teaching, meetings and medical appointments; YouTube for music balm.
Getting out of the always-on world of smartphones has benefits. Preventing me from diving too deeply online reduces decision fatigue and news overload, as I would expect if Google were at my fingertips at every moment. Limiting people’s ability to reach me organically prunes the dead branches of my social network.
But it’s getting harder and harder to access the world without a smartphone.
I first encountered social exclusion while looking for a room rental in San Francisco in 2016. A renter disqualified me because my phone couldn’t handle group messages from roommates.
Since then, my exclusion zone has widened to include restaurants that take app-only reservations or have menus accessible via the dreaded QR code; and healthcare companies that use HIPAA compliant apps for scheduling and communications. I’m preparing for when I can no longer access email or board a plane without a smartphone.
It’s already a challenge to use the BART public transit system in San Francisco, as it has eliminated paper timetables showing the times of all train lines, giving those who don’t use the app the pleasure of downloading 10 PDFs.
My father never used a computer and considered me a wizard because I could retrieve information online. But my “powers” only extended so far. Accessing virtual medical care for him would require a smartphone app.
Fun also usually requires a smartphone. When I was offered an extra ticket to a US Open tennis tournament, I jumped at the chance to get a sneak peek at this elite event. But the ticket allowed entry only if displayed on a smartphone. I watched my smartphone-equipped friend’s graces, like Cinderella sneaking off to the ball.
Why am I making my life difficult? The immediacy of a smartphone still poses too great a health threat to risk. I love Oreos, but I don’t keep them at home for the same reason I don’t carry a computer in my pocket. I know my vulnerability to technology’s addictive power, and I don’t want to torture myself with desire.
With a family history of addiction, I am aware of my propensity for overeating. The internet and texting can be dangerous distractions for me. I stopped looking at Twitter in 2021, demoralized by the constant updates of others’ accomplishments. Lonely interactions with men also revealed my susceptibility to compulsive texting. A recent Surgeon General’s report on the dangers of social disconnection recommends that we avoid or limit our use of technology to minimize digital harm.
I’m afraid that once flip phone users run out, I’ll be forced to convert to a smartphone. But “vintage” technology, like flip phones, has captivated Gen Z, giving me hope.
With data accumulating showing links between mental distress and technology overuse, it’s high time we reevaluated our digital diets. Collectively, we must preserve access to vital services and information for those without smartphones, whatever their reasons. Laws requiring businesses to accept cash in cities like New York, San Francisco and Washington provide a model.
Being an active participant in society shouldn’t require owning a smartphone. Technology once promised to expand my world, but the more I use it, the more I feel like a rat in a cage.
Stacy Torres is an assistant professor of sociology in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at UC San Francisco.